Sarah Southerland knows the importance of a protective order. A decade ago, she says, one saved her life.
Now she wants domestic violence victims who are not married to their abusers - and are not considered cohabitants - to have that same legal protection.
On Tuesday, a legislative committee took the first step toward making that happen, advancing a bill that would allow victims of dating violence to seek protective orders.
"I realize it wasn't a magic shield. It couldn't prevent [my ex-husband] from harming me. But it was a legal backing," said Southerland, who obtained a protective order after her husband allegedly beat, raped and starved her.
Under current law, only cohabiting couples - those who are married or live together - and those couples who were previously married or have children together, are able to get protective orders.
For all other domestic violence victims, a civil stalking injunction is their only option. To get one, there must be more than one incident of abuse, said Stewart Ralphs, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake County. And, it's a vastly more complicated legal process.
"These protective orders do work," he said. "Why on Earth would we not want to employ that for our most vulnerable people?"
Each year, between 10 and 20 residents in the state's 16 domestic violence shelters are victims of dating violence, Ralphs said. Many are high school and college age.
"We already have this in Utah. It's not something that is theoretical," he said.
Sponsored by Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, HB10 would allow victims 16 and older to obtain a protective order, even without their parents' consent. A parent, however, could file for a protective order on behalf of the child.
Victims younger than 16, however, would have no recourse, Litvack said.
The bill would also require police who investigate dating violence to treat the victims - and abusers - the same as they would married or cohabiting couples. The bill directs officers to confiscate weapons, make arrangements to protect the victims and take steps to prevent further violence.
But Southerland said the bill would do even more: It would finally establish dating violence as a legitimate problem in Utah.
According to the Utah Domestic Violence Council, dating violence is one of the fastest growing and most serious violent crimes in the state. The council's 2005 "Rape in Utah" report shows that about 87 percent of victims in the state experienced their first sexual assault before 18. More than 90 percent report their attacker was not a stranger to them.
"This is something that is happening in our own back yard," Litvack said.
Art Haney, a Weber County sheriff's lieutenant representing the state's sheriff's association, opposed the legislation, voicing concerns about how police would handle juveniles who violate protective orders filed against them.
An abuser younger than 18, for instance, could not be admitted to juvenile detention without committing a felony, or three like offenses, he said.
And, Haney said, a frivolous protective order filed against a teen could ruin his or her chances of winning scholarships or getting into college.
"This is a good law in concept, but there are some things we need to answer," he said.
Litvack, in response, pointed out that filing a frivolous protective order is a felony. Furthermore, protective orders are civil orders that don't appear on a person's criminal record. Only violation of a protective order is a crime - a Class B misdemeanor.
If the bill is passed into law, Utah would become the 34th state to extend protective orders to victims of dating violence, Litvack said.